Outside the Franklin Square & Munson Fire House, a sign bore a simple message, but seemed to say everything that was on the minds of those gathered inside. "Welcome Home Matt" was exactly the sentiment felt by family and friends who attended a party in honor of Army Reservist Matthew Schmidt, who safely returned from Iraq.
A sense of both pride and gratitude could be seen on the faces of those who know Sgt. Schmidt. For his family, a part of their lives it seemed was put on hold while he was away, but now he is back, having served in the successful campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom and having survived some tough times in a faraway place.
The day before the party held by the Schmidt family, the Town of Hempstead, under the auspices of Supervisor Kate Murray, held a ceremony honoring Schmidt, a town employee in the public safety department.
For over a year, the family and friends of Matthew Schmidt waited for his return from a land overseas where the United States military was in the process of ridding the Middle East of a dictatorship. Schmidt, an Army reservist serving in the 411 Civil Affairs Battalion, left for Fort Bragg on February 19 and then for Iraq on March 30.
Over a year after he left, Sgt. Schmidt returned to the Franklin Square area where he grew up an American hero. "As Matt returned home from Iraq, I was filled with a tremendous sense of gratitude. The sacrifices made by our men and women in the service are profound and we owe them an enormous debt of thanks," said Supervisor Murray.
While Sgt Schmidt was overseas, missing the summer and holidays such as Christmas on Long Island, his family members tried to keep him current on what was happening at home while they held on tight to the hope that they would see him again soon.
When they awaited his phone calls, the Schmidt family worried about Matthew. In anticipation of his homecoming, Matthew's mother Christine Schmidt vowed she would throw a party when her son came home.
Christine and Matt's sister Theresa went up to Danbury, Connecticut to pick him up. Christine said when she saw her son, she cried. "I hugged him. I wouldn't let go of him. It was total relief," she said.
Matt's brother Erick gathered friends and together with his wife Jenn, set the house up for a hero's welcome. The Schmidt family received permission from the Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department to get the rescue truck there. "When he pulled up, we started the sirens on the truck to let the whole community know that he was home finally after a year. He was very surprised and had a big smile on his face," said Erick Schmidt.
Sgt. Schmidt was surprised at the welcome. "It's great to be home," he said. "It's like I never left."
Sgt. Schmidt believes it may have been tougher on families military personnel serving overseas than for the soldiers themselves. The Army Sergeant was focused on the task at hand.
For 10 out of 11 months, Sgt. Schmidt was in Sadr City, formerly Saddam City, trying to help the people of Iraq. "What I remember is all the good stuff. There was tough times, but we all worked together as a team of five and what I remember now is you could see the smiles on the kids' faces. We gave Sadr City stuff it didn't have for 30 years. They didn't have clean water. They didn't have sewage. They didn't have schools for the kids to go to. We gave them a whole, brand new opportunity," he said.
Helping the people of Iraq wasn't without its difficulties though. Christine Schmidt said there were some close calls like the time Matthew was reading a book and he heard a "whoosh" by his ear which may have come from a sniper. "I don't remember that stuff. What I remember is giving the kids food and humanitarian assistance, giving them water and what they needed," Sergeant Schmidt said.
After graduating from H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, Sergeant Schmidt went to college to study accounting and finance. In the civil affairs unit, his knowledge served him well since he was dealing with the financial end of projects for Sadr City. "Every project that went to Sadr City went through me. We did $6 million worth of projects including 141 schools. We started off with soccer field projects just for a quick impact. We needed to show them something immediately and soccer was basically their hobby. We built 19 sports facility around Sadr City, but we also built a soccer stadium for Sadr City, which was $100,000 project. That was open to whole community to use. We also built a children's amusement park [which is like a playground]. Now, they have that for the rest of their lives," he said.
The Americans tried to get the Iraqi people to take responsibility. Three government facilities were built and with each project, American military personnel made use the Iraqis people took the lead.
"I think what kept me going is I kept on working and our team kept busy. To us, we figured that we might as well take as much as we could because the government was giving us as much money as we needed to use. A lot of the money we were using at the beginning wasn't taxpayer money. It was Iraqi money. Probably around November or December, we started to use the American taxpayer money, which was a lot more red tape, but we still got the money pretty easily to do projects," Sgt. Schmidt said.
New York State Senator Michael Balboni presented Sgt. Schmidt with a certificate of appreciation for his service. "I just can't stop feeling the pride when someone from the neighborhood goes overseas and does an amazing job," he said.
Senator Balboni said while listening to Matthew Schmidt speak, his stories were not of a combat soldier as much as they were about a peace keeper, someone who has gone over and tried to take care of people he never knew before. "You realize that we take it all for granted because he's back here and he's healthy and he's fine, but it was really dangerous over there and he did a really great job."
Now, Sgt. Schmidt is back with his family and friends who love him and are celebrating his return. "I feel like the same guy, but I feel like I have more experience. I feel like I have more to offer people," he said.
Sgt. Schmidt said he would now like to go back to college and get into politics, which is just fine with his family as long as he can stay home for a while.